"Fuck This..."

Premiere (UK), December 1995
by John Naughton

Kenneth Branagh returns defiant after the multi-million dollar debacle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to make his lightest film since Peter's Friends. Ironically it also coincides with one of the lowest points in his private life. Ten days after he spoke to John Naughton, the break-up of his six-year message to Emma Thompson was announced. Fuck this, indeed.

"An empty theatre is a lonely place. Behind the tinsel glitter of the curtain and the greasepaint, the theatre can be a hard, lonely world, especially for the actor." The place: Reading Civic Centre. The year: 1976. A 16-year-old Kenneth Branagh, having decided on a career in the theatre, is, with characteristic zeal, seeking out advice from the appropriate authorities, who have unearthed a dusty sheet of A4 bearing the above advice, a stern admonition for any youth foolish enough to want to tread the boards for a living.

Reading, where Branagh moved from his native Belfast at the age of nine, has never enjoyed the happiest relationship with the Arts. Oscar Wilde (who else?) declared, "The best way to see Reading is going through it on a train." T.E. Lawrence would probably have agreed. He left the completed manuscript of his epic, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in the buffet at Reading Station, where it was cleared away with the half-eaten sticky buns and unread, unfunny issues of Punch.

Twenty years on from receiving his "abandon all hope ye who enter the theatre" career advice, Kenneth Branagh is releasing a film which attempts to prove Reading wrong, or at least that bit of it which tried to write off the theatre as "a lonely place."

In the Bleak Midwinter, a black-and-white tale of a bunch of resting actors putting on a production of Hamlet in a village called Hope to save the local church, gives an unashamedly optimistic portrait of the thespian community as a sustaining, surrogate family, binding together in adversity to support one another. It has a message (and title) which will chime with its seasonal Christmas release. It is light, funny, unpretentious and all over soon enough to allow several seasonal tinctures to be taken afterwards in the bar.

Ironically, however, the release of Kenneth Branagh's lightest film since Peter's Friends coincides with one of the lowest points in his private life, in the aftermath of the break-up of his six-year marriage to Emma Thompson. Ten days after this interview took place, Emma Thompson pre-empted a Sunday newspaper exclusive and appeared on her doorstep, describing herself as feeling "very ropey," to confirm that British theatre's most famous couple were separating.

I only mentioned Emma Thompson--then in post-production on her adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility--once in the course of the interview, and that was to ask, How many nights in an average month do you spend under the same roof?

"There's no averages," Branagh replied. "We just had a couple of months off, so we spent all our time together, and then Em goes to New York, doing a bit of editing on Sense and Sensibility. It comes and goes, you know? It gets more or less extreme depending on how you're working, whether you're in the same country.

"I know it's a cliche, but I always think it's a question of the quality of time you spend together. But you know, you have to work at that. A lot of people live in the same house and see each other every day and don't necessarily want to do that...I think there are areas of one's life where if you talk about them too much or get too obsessed with them then you start thinking, Is there a pattern for this? There aren't two people like just, just like there's nobody like you and whoever you're in love with. We're all in pressurised situations just by virtue of living in '95. We do all right."

In light of all this, one cannot help thinking that the words which will best sum up Kenneth Branagh's Yuletide season will not be those of the famous carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" but, rather more to the point, those of Les Gray (of Mud fame), to wit: "It'll Be Lonely This Christmas."
Like Liverpool in their all-conquering pomp, Kenneth Branagh has been too successful to also be popular. From his days at RADA, where he won the gold medal for his year, Branagh's career has appeared, like the graph of an over-performing blue-chip company, to flow remorselessly upwards.

Beginning with a series of acclaimed performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company (at 23, he was Stratford's youngest ever Henry V), via his company Renaissance, which successfully straddled the worlds of film and theatre, with a brief detour to write the first volume of his autobiography at the unfeasibly precocious age of 28, our Ken has only ever been at home to Mr and Mrs Success. (He maintains, of course, that there has been disaster as well as triumph along the way, but only he remembers this.)

But if success made him fashionably unpopular, then, by rights, the release last year of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein should have made him the toast of the town. As is generally the case, the failure of his adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic was greater in perception than reality (it was delivered on time and on budget and has grossed more than $106 million worldwide, keeping it at a safe distance from the likes of Heaven's Gate.) Nonetheless, no one--least of all Branagh--pretends that its commercial performance was anything other than a profound disappointment.

Happy to report, this dispiriting reaction to his work has not embittered Branagh and he appears utterly sanguine, if a little bemused by its reception.

"People say to me in a slightly pitying way, 'Were you interfered with on that movie?'" he explains. "'Is that why it's shite?' To which I say, "No, no, no. It's my movie, it's shite because that's the way I made it.' Of course I don't think it's shite, but if that's what you think, it's entirely my responsibility."

In The Devil's Candy, the story of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities and the definitive account of disaster in moviedom, there is a chilling moment when a pair of Warner Bros suits survey a first-night queue for the movie at one New York cinema and decree there and then that it will be a colossal turkey. Had there been some similar dread moment of epiphany during Frankenstein.

"Well, about two weeks before the film opened," Branagh recalls, "I was pursued very aggressively to act in a film, for an absolutely astronomical sum of money, much more money than I was paid for Frankenstein for the whole of the two years. This was for about six weeks' work on a fucking mega movie! I had to think twice about it, it was a very respectable enterprise all round. But when they were really, really chasing me for this, the final thing they said was, 'Listen, we just want Ken for this. We know--we've followed the tracking, "we're aware of all the research--Frankenstein is going to be a disaster, but we still want him.'"

"It was a very strange, ironic thing. Someone's offering me more money than I've ever thought of in my life, to just act for six weeks, and at the same time they're telling me. 'We're happy to do that even though you're about to launch one of the biggest financial dogs ever.' That certainly sent a message to the system! Actually, it should have sent me clamouring for the cheque, but I turned them down. Haha!"

Has the experience of Frankenstein turned him off the idea of directing further big budget studio films?

"Well, I've been asked lots of times since," he counters, a shade defensively. "People may be surprised to hear that, but I have. There was a very good script I was sent a little while ago, a big kind of period thriller, a very good yarn set in New York which would've been interesting, but I just couldn't face another 18 months of that, going to Bumfuck, Iowa to do the preview and all that stuff."

This aversion to the good citizens of Bumfuck has taken Branagh in the direction of In the Bleak Midwinter, a small-scale, self-financed job, working with his growing repertory company of British actors, either members of the Renaissance Theatre Company like Richard Briers and Gerard Horan or actors with whom Branagh has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford such as Nick Farrell. It's an experience he clearly relished.

"I didn't have to explain anything to anyone," he enthuses. "I didn't have to talk about casting, didn't have to send them rushes to America, didn't have to preview the movie. We made it, finished it and then we sold it. I was on the phone a fucking sight less, and you're not in front of that vast army of people representing the particular bureaucracy you're working for, stroking them. As a result there was more space just to work."

But even these near-idyllic work conditions held the spectre of compromise and marketing meetings. Castle Rock, the US production entity which ultimately bought the movie, had major reservations about its title.

"They offered a hundred different titles, and pleaded with me not to have 'bleak' in the title. They said, 'Nobody in America knows the hymn,' and that they'd had responses saying, 'Is this his Bergman film?' I said, 'Well tell them it's my Carry On film, that's what it is!' I still had to explain what that meant, so I said, 'It's British and funny.'
As mentioned earlier, when Kenneth Branagh was nine, his family moved from the tight-knit community and familiar streets of Belfast to Reading. The early '70s were not a spectacularly good time to be Irish and living in England. His speech was virtually unintelligible, his nationality held him ultimately responsible for every soldier's death in Ulster and he was bullied. Like Lady Di, he took to throwing himself down staircases and then retreated into his bedroom and lived an Adrian Mole-style existence, corresponding furiously with the outside world (he once unsuccessfully asked Morecambe & Wise for tickets) but too scared to out and shake its hand.

Having suffered this dislocation in early life, Branagh's professional career, perhaps not surprisingly, reveals a marked degree of continuity. Today's interview takes place as usual at the Durley House Hotel on Sloane Street, the regular location for his London interviews. The people he surrounds himself with, not just his company of actors, tend to have belonged to his entourage for some time. And then, of course, there is his abiding fixation with that man Shakespeare, or, as Alan Partridge would say, The Bard. Himself.

"People often ask me, 'Why the fuck do you keep doing Shakespeare?'" sighs Branagh. "Well, because it's meaningful to me, and this film partly explains why that is. That to do it well--or even just to work on it--I find very life-enhancing. I don't have any kind of conventional religious belief and I find Shakespeare's a tremendous source of inspiration, because there's no situation that I've come up against that somehow hasn't been described in those plays.

"Not that I sit and go to sleep reading the stuff, for Christ's sake," he continues. "It's just that when I do work on it, it's like going back to some great piece of music. It is dramatic poetry, so each time you hear it, it reacts on you in a different, usually a richer, way. It's like a wonderful dog that gives you much more than you'll ever give it. There's unconditional love in there; he never lets you down and he's never sentimental; he's always bracing because he's so very very realistic about families and love and all the normal human stuff."

Such is Branagh's overwhelming enthusiasm that his Shakespeare manifesto reads like a one-man version of Call My Bluff. It's not hard to imagine Robert Robinson looking down at his cards and patronisingly summing up, "So, Shakespeare--it's a great piece of music according to Frank, or perhaps it's dramatic poetry or, who knows, it's a wonderful dog."

No matter. Branagh's joie de Will is self-evident and infectious and is matched in In the Bleak Midwinter with his belief in the camaraderie of the surrogate family which the theatre provides. At one point in the film, a member of the cast declares, "Families. They don't work, do they." The suggestion clearly is that the theatrical family works better than the real thing. Does he really believe this?

"Well, maybe the nature of all families is that they don't work," he counters, "and that the process of being in a family is simply accepting that. But some people drive you mad whether you're related to them or not. Blood is not necessarily thicker than water."

In Branagh's autobiography, Beginning, he relates how his decision to become an actor confirms his father's worst fears that his son must be homosexual. In the Bleak Midwinter portrays the enduring link between theatre and its queens in the the character of Terry Du Bois, who plays Hamlet's mother Gertrude in the play within the film; it's a role performed by John Sessions with more camp than David. Branagh goes to the trouble of explaining the notion of camp in the film, a decision which didn't meet with universal approval.

"Somebody in the the theatre said it me after reading the script, 'Well, if you have to explain the camp thing then you've lost them anyway.' But I just don't think you can assume that people know what you're talking about, and it is also worth just explaining the silliness of it.

"Way back in Stratford," he continues, "there was an actor in the company who was so camp that from day one he gave all the boys girls' names, so I was Brenda Madge Branagh. There was a beautiful French actress called Cecile Paoli, and she was Jock Paoli for whole of the season. It was bizarre. Later on, I was walking up the steps at Oxford Circus tube station one morning and this hand suddenly went up my arse and he squeezed it and said, 'Ooh, Brenda Madge, how are we today?'"

Clearly, camping for Branagh is all part of life's rich Peugot, but should anyone use the dreaded word "luvvie" to describe members of the thespian world, his demeanour loses its unruffled equilibrium.

"It's worth saying, the word 'luvvie' does not appear in this film, because it drives me mad personally. I find it indiscriminately used and now rather meaningless. Yes, actors can be vain, greedy and insecure, and yes, they can also be rather marvellous and rather inspiring human beings. They're all these things, but they're not just this generic term for thick, glib, cheese-on-a-stick-eating gossips."

Kenneth Branagh has taken quite some pounding professionally and (more recently) personally, yet his outlook remains defiantly optimistic. He confesses to not knowing the difference between Blur and Oasis [egads!! ;)], but his soundtrack might owe more to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" than anything else. When I point out that he is happy to express himself in terms that could see him featuring strongly in Private Eye's Luvvie column, his reply has a wider resonance as well as revealing a previously undisplayed familiarity with Messrs Eff and Jeff.

"Oh yes. Fuck this, I'm not going to have my soul shrivelled and my language altered because we're all afraid of looking like tits. I think enough of us know that our contribution to the sum total of man's position in the evolutionary scale is not greater than brain surgeons and heart specialists and any number of people, but you do what you do and you've got a right to an opinion and people have the right to take a piss as well. We'll never be excluded from criticism, there's no reason why we should be. After all, it's quite fun really, isn't it?"

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